High Crimes: Carl Franklin’s Political Thriller, Starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd

Joining forces for the second time, after their 1997 box-office hit, Kiss the Girls, Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman demonstrate again their chemistry in Carl Franklin’s High Crimes, a middling political thriller that’s not particularly suspenseful or dramatic to generate heat.

Part marriage melodrama, part court martial, part military conspiracy, part buddy-buddy flick (with the twist of a male-female team), High Crimes is occasionally enveloped with a cocoon of somber pretentiousness, while in actuality it’s just a routine thriller.

Released just a week after Panic Room, David Fincher’s superior thriller, Fox spring release will suffer in its wide theatrical distribution, ultimately reaching mid-range numbers, though below the level of Freeman’s previous thrillers, Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls. In the long run, the small screen, home-video and other ancillaries should prove more hospitable.

For a decade, writer Joseph Finder, an expert on the CIA and international politics, has been praised for his mix of thrills and political intrigues in such books as The Moscow Club, The Zero Hour, and High Crimes. Unfortunately, for the sake of a “cleaner” script, the novel’s dense political plot and complex structure have been simplified by husband and wife team Yuri Zeltser and Cary Rickey, who are mostly responsible for minor pictures.

Claire Kubik (Judd) seems to be the ideal and happiest woman, what with a thriving career as a high-powered attorney, a wonderful husband, Tom (Caviezel), who’s a successful contractor with his own business, and a beautiful house in the Marin County. The couple is planning on having a child when a random crime, a bungled burglary at their house, triggers a chain of events that shatters their stable, idyllic world.

To claire’s utmost shock, soon after the crime, FBI agents accost them and Tom is arrested. Apparently, under his real name, Ronald Chapman, Tom was a covert military operative who had orchestrated a mass murder of civilians in El Salvador. At first, the innocent Claire believes that it’s just a case of mistaken identity, but then Tom admits than he was forced to be part of a clandestine operation that led to the massacre for which he’s blamed. Through flashbacks, director Franklin examines the massacre from various point-of-view, the purpose of which is to increase suspense and baffle the audience–at least for a while.

The scripters waste no time in setting the central situation, which revolves around an ambitious and loving wife, who decides to defend her own husband in a top-secret military court. Needless to say, being a woman and civilian, who’s unfamiliar with military and political procedures, makes Claire an outsider par excellence.

The first reel in persuasive in showing how a newly married and adoring wife gradually realizes that she really doesn’t know all that well her mate. This premise will touch chord with viewers who have been engaged in friendships and bonds that are suddenly splintered as a result of the disclosure of secretive information about their companions’ past.

However, the essence of the narrative is more pedestrian that it needs to be, presenting a variation on a band of outsiders, who work together hard to prove Tom’s innocence. The clique of trio includes a greenhorn military attorney, Lt. Embry (Scott), who’s assigned to the case, and a truly “wild card,” Charlie Grimes (Freeman), a former military attorney who relishes the opportunity to take on the very hierarchical regime that had disgraced him years ago and has left him with a big chip on his shoulder.

The ease with which Claire approaches top military officials, such as Brig. General Marks (cast against type Bruce Davison) defies credibility, and there are several sequences that are illogical or too contrived in the context of this particular story. But the film improves in the last act, offering a twist ending that’s emotionally satisfying.

By now, Ashley Judd has lost her innocent, angelic looks (most evident in her breakthrough role, Ruby in Paradise), as well as grittier performances (in Smoke and Heat, among others) for the sake of becoming a more visible star in such artistically lukewarm but commercial efforts as Double Jeopardy and Kiss the Girls. Unlike Jodie Foster, who currently elevates Panic Room way above its generic nature, in High Crimes, Judd gives a decent but uninspired performance that is on the same level as the material.

While Freeman doesn’t put the picture in the must-see category, he still justifies the price of admission with his nuanced and moving performance as the bruised and solitary Grimes, a man who has seen too much in his time but is neither triumphant nor defeated by the experience. Often better than the text he’s given to play, Freeman adds humor to the calm dignity that has informed all of his past work.